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Why all the fuss about mayors?

The 10 new city mayors would be among the most influential individuals in the country.

New Statesman
Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne plans to stand for mayor of Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

The Boris and Ken show may be stealing most of the headlines but on 3 May ten of the largest English cities outside London will be hosting referenda to determine whether they will be run by a directly elected mayor instead of a leader and cabinet.

There has been much discussion about elected mayors – should we go for them or shouldn’t we? It was back in 2000 when cities were given the option to move to the mayoral model, yet since then only 12 out of 410 local authorities have chosen to do so. Conviction from government, however, remains strong, as demonstrated by David Cameron’s speech on Monday: “If you want to see your city grow more prominent, more powerful, more prosperous - get out and vote yes.”

Centre for Cities’ research suggests that mayors have the potential to make a difference in their cities. Our latest study shows that if mayors are introduced, they will be amongst the most influential individuals in the country. They would, for instance, represent far more people that the average MP. A mayor of Birmingham would represent over 1 million people, while Liam Byrne MP’s constituency in that city has a population of just 117,300.  This visibility would give mayors the opportunity to drive their cities’ economic priorities.

Our work also shows that the 10 city mayors would have big jobs to do because they need to focus on public services and supporting economic growth. In London, the mayor has 33 London boroughs to look after the everyday needs of their constituents, from social care to collecting the bins, meaning that the London mayor can focus on the economy. But a mayor, if elected in the other 10 cities, would have a much longer ‘to do’ list.

In Leeds, for example, a mayor would need to oversee education in around 250 schools, 50 of which are operating over capacity, at the same time as responding to unemployment challenges. In Nottingham, a mayor would need to provide high quality children’s services and help to coordinate work to improve the skills of the 14,600 people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).

Supporting business and physical development will also be a sizable task for new mayors. A mayor in Newcastle, for example, would need to efficiently process planning applications (there were 1,560 in 2010/11) as well as ensure that the city’s 7,500 businesses employing over 100,000 people are supported. And, all this must be done in an era of austerity, which a mayor will have to manage. The ten mayoral cities combined are expected to see their revenue spending power fall by at least 3.8 percent in the new financial year.

With all of this, plus responsibility for delivery of a wide range of public services there is a risk that the economic development agenda is pushed too far down the agenda. But in a time of slow economic recovery, support from mayors for the economy is vital – and this is where the experience of international cities suggests that having a mayor can be an advantage. Having one clear figurehead who acts as an ambassador for the city to government and to business, who lobbies for investment and who coordinates the work of the public sector has delivered benefits in cities as varied as Boston and Barcelona.

The government has resisted setting out the powers that mayors will gain, arguing that this should be up to individual cities to negotiate.  But a recent BBC poll suggested that 62 per cent of people in Doncaster, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield didn’t know the referendum was taking place, so now is a good time for the government raise awareness by spelling out what powers will be afforded to mayors. 

Our research suggests that mayors should use their position to develop a strategic plan for the local economy that also considers how the local area relates to neighbours. They should be empowered to take planning decisions of strategic importance, delegating all others to the local authority planning committee.

Finally, the referenda in May are for local authority mayors. But, research by Centre for Cities suggests that mayors would have greater potential to support local economic growth if they operated over a geography which mirrors the natural economy, rather than current administrative boundaries. Bristol’s labour market footprint for example stretches out from Bristol local authority to Wotton-under-Edge 16 miles North and Weston-Super-Mare 18 miles south.  Government should therefore give cities the opportunity to move towards a metro mayor model over time.

Mayors are no panacea but our research shows that, particularly if they are given the right range of powers, mayors have the potential to deliver significant benefits for city economies.

Alexandra Jones is the chief executive of Centre for Cities.